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San Francisco State professor’s memoir chronicles mental breakdown that led to success

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Professor, author and historian Joseph McBride poses for a portrait in the library of San Francisco State University in San Francisco, Calif. Thursday, March 3, 2016. (Jessica Christian/S.F. Examiner)
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There was something wrong with his mind.

At 17 years old, a sexually repressed Joseph McBride concocted a fruitless plan to save the world. He would meet with then-President Lyndon B. Johnson, bring about nuclear disarmament with the Russians and integrate Southern colleges in a nation divided by race.

But when he told that story to a friend, who then sought help from the principal at his school, McBride found himself committed to the Milwaukee County Mental Health Center for four months.

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“That actually was the best thing that ever happened to me because it saved my life,” McBride, 68, recalled. “It got me out of the house, it got me out of school and I was able to meet a girl for the first time.”

That girl, a young Native American and Irish woman named Katherine Wolf who had multiple personalities, would later commit suicide. But through their disturbed romance, McBride would cross a threshold in his life by escaping the sexual limitations of his Catholic upbringing.

“The sad part is that I was improving while she was going downhill,” McBride said on Thursday, wearing wire-framed glasses and a corduroy jacket during an interview in his office at San Francisco State University.

Such are the events of the early life of McBride, a tenured cinema professor, which are chronicled in his recently released memoir “The Broken Places.” The book touches on his own mental breakdown but is also a tribute to Wolf, who at times believed she was Barbra Streisand or an elegant woman named Eloise, according to McBride.

“When you’re dealing with things like mental illness, there’s still a certain stigma,” McBride said. “You have to kind of whip yourself up into telling the truth about things like this and other issues, painful issues.”

“The Broken Places” is the latest work from a successful author who has also written biographies on notable directors like Steven Spielberg and Frank Capra; investigated the killings of John F. Kennedy Jr. and policeman J.D. Tippit; and cowritten the screenplay for the cult classic “Rock ‘n’ Roll High School.”

“I modeled the Riff Randell character in that punk rock musical on Kathy Wolf,” McBride said.

Professor Steven Kovacs, who works with McBride at SFSU, said they first met in 1978 during production of that film, for which Kovacs was head of production.

“He is an absolute dynamo, an incredible researcher and he writes all the time,” Kovacs said. “In some ways, he is an unusual university professor because he insists on proper writing form and style.”

McBride considers himself a professional journalist since age 12, when he sold his first article to a national Catholic publication. In high school, McBride wrote a book about baseball slang that was published 17 years later, in 1980.

“I’ve been writing books my whole life, since 1963,” McBride said.

McBride would continue on to write a total of 18 books. He interviewed some 300 people for his biography about Spielberg, in which he reported for the first time that the famed director had been lying about his age since he was 21.

In his book “Into The Nightmare: My Search for the Killers of President John F. Kennedy and Officer J.D. Tippit,” released in 2013, McBride claimed that Tippit was involved in the conspiracy to kill the president, hunting down Oswald when Tippit was lured into a trap and killed.

“They blame both on Lee Harvey Oswald, who I don’t think committed either crime,” McBride said. “But the Tippit killing had been deliberately ignored pretty much in the government investigations.”

TEACHING

McBride said the courses he teaches to cinema students are often reflective of his work. At present, he is writing a book about the German-American director Ernst Lubitsch, to whom McBride attributes the creation of the romantic comedy and musical film genres.

“I created a course on [Lubitsch] and Billy Wilder,” McBride said. “It’s good when you’re writing a book to have interchanges with students to kind of test your thoughts and get their feedback.”

Most of the classes McBride teaches are about directors, like his current one on Jean Renoir, while the other courses he offers are in screenwriting.

He currently lives in Berkeley with his partner, Ann Weiser Cornell, who writes self-help books.

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